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Protecting Little Lungs From the Dangers of Air Pollution

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air pollution-pregnant-babies-lungs-air quality

Air pollution can affect anyone’s health, but pregnant people, their fetuses, and children are at higher risk for health impacts.

Christy Sadreameli, M.D.

Pediatric Pulmonologist and National Volunteer Medical Spokesperson, American Lung Association,

If you’re a parent or a caregiver to children, you know what it’s like to always be on the lookout for ways to protect them from harm. But that can seem hard to do when it comes to the air our children breathe.

While everyone’s health is at risk from breathing air pollution, some people face higher risk for health impacts than others, including pregnant people, their fetuses, babies, and children. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help protect them.

How poor air quality impacts pregnant people and babies

Air pollution puts millions of pregnant people and their fetuses at risk. Studies show that exposure during pregnancy to the two most common types of air pollution — ozone (also known as smog) and particle pollution (also known as soot) — is strongly associated with premature birth, low birth weight, and stillbirth. These risks are amplified when there are multiple risk factors, like if the pregnant person is also a person of color, has a chronic conidition like asthma, or works outdoors. Pregnant people exposed to wildfire smoke are even more likely to experience adverse pregnancy outcomes, including preterm birth.

The American Lung Association’s 2022 “State of the Air” report reveals that there were more than 1.5 million pregnant people who lived in a county that received a failing grade for ozone pollution, short-term particle pollution, or annual particle pollution, and 210,000 lived in counties that received failing grades for all three.

Children and air pollution

Children are more susceptible to heath impacts from air pollution and more likely to be
exposed to air pollution than adults. Children’s lungs are still developing, and that development lasts into early adulthood. Exposure to air pollution at any stage of lung development can have both immediate and lasting impacts on developing lungs and children’s health.

Children breathe more rapidly and inhale more air relative to their size than adults. They are also more likely to spend time outdoors being active and breathing hard. Playing outside is part of childhood, and should be, but unfortunately, this also means children are more exposed to polluted outdoor air than adults typically are. Air pollution has been linked to increased severity of asthma attacks and hospitalization for asthma among children.

Millions of children are at risk. The “State of the Air” report shows that 31 million children under age 18 live in counties that received a failing for at least one type of pollution, and almost 4.7 million children live in counties failing in both ozone and particle pollution.

What can you do to protect your family from air pollution?

  1. Pay attention to your daily air quality and take precautions if the air quality is poor. You can check your air quality at It is especially important to check your air quality on hot summer days. Ozone pollution levels typically rise between May and October because of higher temperatures, increased sunlight, and stagnant atmospheric conditions.
  2. If it is a poor air quality day, you can take precautions like rolling up your car windows and putting your home and car air conditioners on recirculate.
  3. Avoid exercising outdoors when pollution levels are high and try to avoid exercising near high-traffic areas. Limit the amount of time your child spends playing outdoors when the air quality is unhealthy.
  4. Speak up for policies to clean up the air. You don’t need to be an expert. Simply sharing your family’s experiences with air pollution with your leaders can make a powerful case for change.

Learn more about how you can protect yourself and your family from poor air quality here.

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